Buckle into your time machine and set it for 1950. TV is still a novelty. Doo-wop is cutting edge. And bodybuilders are training their entire physiques in every workout. This may sound ridiculously quaint, but weight trainers then didn’t follow split routines. The break-it-up revolution occurred in the 1960s. Before then, greats like 1950 Mr. Universe Steve Reeves earned their Herculean builds while hitting every body part in every workout. Despite lacking modern nutritional and technological advantages, the legends of six decades ago still attained physiques that are admired today. So let’s go way back in time to see why full-body routines worked then and how they can still work for you now.
“When you work your whole body in each workout, it forces you to think about symmetry. Your focus is always on the whole and not the parts.” — Steve Reeves
So here we are in 1950, and 24-year-old Reeves is toiling in a gym in Oakland, CA. In a way, we’ve gone full circle, because Reeves and his contemporaries focused on functional strength, which has returned to fashion in recent years. You’ll see a lot of cleaning and overhead pressing and unique exercises like Jefferson squats (a favorite of Kai Greene), free-weight hack squats, and pullover-and-presses. Routines consisted mostly of compound lifts.
Let’s compare the physiques then with those of now. Today’s best bodybuilders are, of course, much larger, especially when it comes to hamstrings, back density, and lower pecs. Those areas weren’t prioritized then. But, relatively speaking, 60 years ago there was a greater focus on overall proportionality—that classical Reeves look that corresponds to today’s men’s physique competitors. In part, this came about via all those functional-strength and compound exercises. For example, Reeves didn’t earn his famous shoulders with lateral raises. Instead, delts were worked thrice weekly via not just standing overhead presses but also by assisting in lifts like incline presses and barbell rows.
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